KINGSTON, ON -- A violent sexual predator was in their midst, prisoners say, and authorities at Canada's oldest, most notorious penitentiary gave him the keys to every cell.
Big prisons invariably have a few well-connected inmates around whom the others tread warily. By every account, convicted killer Michel Huneault was just such a man, a stocky, muscled figure who stirred respect and considerable fear when he walked along Kingston Penitentiary's ancient cellblocks in his trademark bandanna.
It was not merely that Mr. Huneault spoke of his affiliation to the Rock Machine biker gang and the fellow gangster he said he had killed. He was also the elected chairman of the inmate committee, a powerful position that gave him access to every cell at the penitentiary, home to more than 400 prisoners, most of them sex offenders.
In that capacity, five prisoners say, Mr. Huneault for months conducted a one-man reign of terror -- raping inmates at knifepoint, supplying them with drugs, threatening them with death if they spoke up.
One says Mr. Huneault also managed to get his hands on the inmate's personal prison file, describing, among other things, sexual abuse the man had suffered as a child.
"I just wondered how the hell he got it," said that prisoner, one of three of Mr. Huneault's alleged victims who have since attempted suicide.
Rarely do prisoners at federal institutions snitch on others, for the good reason that it can amount to a death sentence. This time, however, citing a climate of extreme duress, they did step forward. A sixth man has complained of being violated by Mr. Huneault at another federal prison.
Now, after investigating for several months, provincial police have recommended that sexual-assault charges be laid against Mr. Huneault, 44, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He was convicted in 1986 in Montreal.
"Hopefully the Crown will agree with what I've suggested," and lay charges, said Ontario Provincial Police Constable Kip Wohlert of the "Pen Squad," which investigates crimes inside the Kingston area's eight prisons. He described his completed report as "quite a thick package." The prisoners' accusations are only accusations. Evidence from the kind of people caged at Kingston Penitentiary is intrinsically suspect.
But what is also clear is that Mr. Huneault's reputation as a sexual predator preceded him when he was transferred to the maximum-security penitentiary from medium-security Joyceville Institution in May of last year.
No one suggests officials at Kingston knew of Mr. Huneault's alleged crimes while they were taking place.
"He was careful, and very careful about who he picked out," the same inmate said, adding that he was raped by Mr. Huneault "at least 25 times," often while in a heroin-induced haze.
But at least two of the complainants say they warned officials of the Correctional Service of Canada that although Mr. Huneault has no convictions for sex offences -- other than his murder conviction, his criminal record chiefly comprises a long string of violent robberies stretching back to 1974 -- he had been sexually assaulting inmates at other prisons.
Penitentiary warden Monty Bourke does not deny that Mr. Huneault had been red-flagged because of those suspicions, but says there was still no reason to prevent him serving as inmate committee chairman, a full-time position over which prison authorities have a veto.
"Although he was alleged to have been involved in predatory behaviour elsewhere and was referred to a psychologist here, there was nothing substantive to that," Mr. Bourke said.
"A prior alleged victim refused to step forward on it."
Mr. Huneault was even questioned about the allegations, Mr. Bourke said. "And the story was that this was all concocted to get him to higher security."
But apparently there were indicators inside Kingston Penitentiary, too.
Inmates on his cellblock say that in December, shortly before Mr. Huneault was elected committee chairman (in a vote one complainant described as weighted with promises and muscle), they were asked specifically if he was preying on them.
Perhaps because it was common knowledge they were being interviewed, all said no.
The penitentiary's inmate committee chairman acts as a conduit between administration and prisoners, enjoying considerable clout with both.
Besides helping in social events and such duties as the purchase of supplies, the chairman also has a critical role as peacemaker, and as such is the only inmate who can visit any cellblock.
"So how does a man of Huneault's background get to be committee chairman at KP?" asked Kingston lawyer Josh Zambrowsky, who is acting for several of the complainants. "He was literally the only inmate with free run of the institution. That's why CSC has a veto.
"The most dangerous thing for an inmate to do is to make formal complaints about another inmate to the police: That's life-threatening," said Mr. Zambrowsky, who scents a lawsuit.
"So for those inmates to take that step lends credence to their allegations."
After the prisoners' complaints first surfaced in May, Mr. Huneault was transferred, first to nearby Millhaven Institution and then to a supermaximum prison unit in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, north of Montreal.
He declined a request to be interviewed.
Since its heavy wooden gates first creaked open more than a century and a half ago, Kingston Penitentiary has been a house of horrors, the end of the line for the incorrigible, highest-risk offenders.
Nor is there anything new in controversy about the prison's keepers. A 1989 report on the institution identified a "rogue culture" among the guards.
In June, the same month tear gas was used to quell a riot, a coroner's jury examining a prisoner's brutal death at the prison in 1993 urged that Canada's penal system be overseen by an outside civilian agency.
A $43-million renovation to the old fortress was completed this year. With a Maple Leaf flag fluttering above walls of muted beige concrete and 19th-century-style stonework, the prison almost blends into Kingston's attractive waterfront.
Living conditions, too, have improved. Cellblocks are cleaner and better lit, and the much-feared segregation "hole" has finally been welded shut, on orders last year from CSC Commissioner Ole Ingstrup.
But some things, notably the nature of its inmates, have not changed. Given that collective profile, the fact that Mr. Huneault was suspected of targeting other inmates was no reason to bar him from being committee chairman, Mr. Bourke said.
"Say you have an offender who kills another inmate and is transferred to us, and we have a number of offenders like that. Is that a preindicator they may kill another inmate? Yes, because they've done it before. But what's the likelihood of that? Do we put this fellow in segregation, treat him differently?
"Anyone who comes to us from a lower [security] institution, there's some sort of a flag on them; this is our normal population here. This is what we have to deal with."
Mr. Bourke notes that all of Mr. Huneault's alleged victims were on his own cellblock, and said no complaints have arisen as a result of his access to the rest of the prison.
But in at least one instance, one of the prisoners says he was visited alone by Mr. Huneault in one of the institution's segregation cellblocks -- he had fled there, he says, to escape his tormentor -- and told, "If you say anything [about allegations of sexual assault], you won't get off the range alive."
As to the allegation that Mr. Huneault had access to confidential files, Mr. Bourke said: "I would categorically deny that. They [prisoners] wouldn't have access to our information banks. I don't know how that would occur. Our files are protected."
Mr. Bourke acknowledges, however, that this summer authorities learned that confidential information about prisoners was in circulation.
"What happened was: A computer that was provided to a segregated inmate for an educational cell-study program wasn't completely wiped, and there was some information on that regarding a number of offenders.
"The staff in charge of our computers, frankly, should have ensured that the information was completely wiped, and we were remiss about that. I issued a memo to every offender regarding a breach of the Privacy Act."
As to any link between that security breach and Mr. Huneault's alleged access to the prisoner's file, Mr. Bourke said, "I'm not aware of any connection."